Good­bye, Gucci Grace!

Known for her ex­trav­a­gance, the Zim­bab­wean first lady’s hunger for power sealed her po­lit­i­cal demise and that of her hus­band

Sunday Times - - INSIGHT ZIMBABWE - By PETER GOD­WIN God­win is the au­thor of The Fear: Robert Mu­gabe and the Mar­tyr­dom of Zimbabwe

How has the down­fall of Robert Mu­gabe — at 93 the world’s long­est-serv­ing leader and the only one Zimbabwe has known since its in­de­pen­dence in 1980 — fi­nally come to pass? Thanks to his younger wife, known through­out the coun­try as “Gucci Grace”, the First Shop­per. Forty-one years his ju­nior, she has been his Lady Mac­beth, spend­ing ex­trav­a­gantly, ruth­lessly tram­pling on ad­ver­saries, and fix­ated with power. Grace came from hum­ble ori­gins, born in Benoni to Zim­bab­wean mi­grant work­ing par­ents and raised in the Zim­bab­wean farm­ing town of Chivhu, where she was ed­u­cated at a mis­sion­ary school be­fore go­ing to sec­re­tar­ial col­lege. But things soon changed.

Mu­gabe mar­ried his sec­ond wife in 1996 in a lav­ish wed­ding at­tended by Nel­son Man­dela and, for a while, she played the role of qui­es­cent spouse, busy­ing her­self with some se­ri­ous klep­to­cratic wealth ac­cu­mu­la­tion — some­thing the fairly frugal Mu­gabe hadn’t been known for. She set about or­gan­is­ing the con­struc­tion of a huge pres­i­den­tial villa in 2003, at a then es­ti­mated ex­pense of £6-mil­lion. The 1ha es­tate, be­lieved to in­clude 25 bed­rooms and mul­ti­ple spas, was dubbed Grace­land by Zim­bab­weans.

She went on fre­quent shop­ping trips abroad, es­pe­cially to Sin­ga­pore, where her hus­band went for med­i­cal treat­ment, or to New York for the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly, re­turn­ing with trunks bulging with bling. On one visit to Paris, she was re­ported to have spent £75 000 in de­signer stores. Be­fore 2002, when the pair were banned from travel in Europe due to hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, her favourite des­ti­na­tion was Har­rods in Lon­don.

Af­ter one trip, when she stayed in a suite at Clar­idges, she was asked how she could jus­tify spend­ing so much on de­signer shoes while peo­ple starved. “I have very nar­row feet, so I can only wear Fer­rag­amo,” she ex­plained.

Typ­ing pool

When her hus­band launched his takeover of white-owned com­mer­cial farms in 2000, Grace seized some prize prop­er­ties in the lush coun­try­side of Ma­zowe, near Harare. There, she built a state-of-the-art dairy and a pri­vate game re­serve. In 2007, she re­port­edly fi­nalised build­ing work on a sec­ond pala­tial mansion, at a cost of £20-mil­lion. But still she stayed mostly in her hus­band’s shadow.

It was only as he be­gan to sink into his dotage that her po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions stirred. He had dom­i­nated the rul­ing party, Zanu-PF, for so long that it had mor­phed into a per­son­al­ity cult, one that he ruled as his per­sonal fief­dom. And, as is so of­ten the case with au­to­crats, he couldn’t bear to make plans for his own suc­ces­sion, as this would en­tail con­tem­plat­ing his own mor­tal­ity. Grace be­gan to eye the top job. How bet­ter to as­sure the fam­ily’s sta­tus than to keep the seat at the head of the ta­ble?

She bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to his first wife, the much-loved Sally, a Ghana­ian who was dubbed “Amai” (mother). Mu­gabe first no­ticed Grace as he strolled through the typ­ing pool at State House — they were both mar­ried at the time. Sally was ill. Grace was then wed to a Zim­bab­wean air force of­fi­cer, Stan­ley Gor­eraza, who Mu­gabe sent off to China as de­fence at­taché. Mu­gabe fa­thered two chil­dren with his mis­tress, which was kept se­cret from the peo­ple of Zimbabwe, be­fore his wife died in 1992, and a third af­ter­wards. With Sally out of the way, the pair mar­ried.

There was a prob­lem with Grace’s in­tended as­cen­sion to the throne, how­ever: she was too young to have played a role in the war for in­de­pen­dence, so she had no lib­er­a­tion cre­den­tials. Grace thought that her sta­tus as Mu­gabe’s wife would trump this. To make her­self more sub­stan­tial a fig­ure, in 2014 she achieved what must be the world’s fastest PhD, in just two months, from the Uni­ver­sity of Zimbabwe. She was not re­quired to de­fend her the­sis, which is mys­te­ri­ously un­avail­able in the uni­ver­sity’s li­brary.

But her instant doc­tor­ate wasn’t enough to fix her other image prob­lem — her tem­per. She re­cently bought a 100ct di­a­mond ring for her hus­band, worth £1.1-mil­lion (about R20.4-mil­lion), but is now su­ing the Le­banese dealer who sold it to her, claim­ing the ring was sub­stan­dard. The dealer had to flee her wrath. In Hong Kong, she fa­mously as­saulted a jour­nal­ist who was fol­low­ing her on a visit there.

Her spoilt prog­eny have only ex­ac­er­bated her image prob­lem: her sons have been liv­ing the high life in the north­ern sub­urbs of Jo­han­nes­burg, hang­ing out with their en­tourages at ex­pen­sive night­clubs, drink­ing top-shelf cham­pagne. They of­ten boast of their lav­ish lives on In­sta­gram — one, Bel­larmine, last week posted a pic­ture of his new watch with the cap­tion “$60 000 [R840 000] on the wrist when your daddy run the whole coun­try ya know!!!”, later up­load­ing a video to Snapchat of him­self pour­ing cham­pagne over the band. In 2015, the av­er­age Zim­bab­wean was liv­ing on just over £2 a day. A lit­tle over three months ago, when 52-year-old Grace vis­ited her sons in a Jo­han­nes­burg ho­tel, she flew into a rage upon find­ing them en­ter­tain­ing a young model. With her body­guards look­ing on, Grace thrashed the girl with an ex­ten­sion cord, cut­ting her face so badly that she needed stitches. Fac­ing as­sault charges, and to avoid a ma­jor international in­ci­dent, Grace was hus­tled out of South Africa un­der diplo­matic im­mu­nity.

Poi­soned ice cream

In the mean­time, she had parachuted her way into the top of the party, see­ing off the vi­cepres­i­dent, Joice Mu­juru, who Grace got her hus­band to fire for al­legedly plot­ting to over­throw him. She then as­cended to the head of Zanu-PF Women’s League, tour­ing the coun­try in a ve­hi­cle em­bla­zoned with her own face.

Grace’s hus­band has been, for some time, on his last legs — through­out this year, photos have ap­peared in the press of him nod­ding off in meetings and at ral­lies. And when he last spoke at the UN his legs were so un­steady he had to hold on to chair backs on his way to the podium.

To oth­ers in Zanu-PF it seemed Grace was now in con­trol and de­ter­mined to suc­ceed him. Her last re­main­ing ob­sta­cle was the other vice-pres­i­dent, Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa, who had been Mu­gabe’s in­tel­li­gence chief dur­ing the war for in­de­pen­dence. When she was heck­led at a public rally at the be­gin­ning of this month by a few of his sup­port­ers, she went bal­lis­tic, pub­licly ac­cus­ing him of plot­ting a coup.

Mnan­gagwa then ac­cused Grace’s fac­tion of try­ing to kill him off with a poi­soned ice cream. He be­gan vom­it­ing co­pi­ously and had to be air­lifted to South Africa for treat­ment; by his re­turn, Grace had co-opted her hus­band to join in the at­tacks. Last week, Mnan­gagwa was fired and ousted from the party, and had to flee in fear of his life.

But Grace had failed to se­cure the sup­port of the army. What­ever tran­si­tion ar­range­ment is ne­go­ti­ated for Mu­gabe’s po­lit­i­cal demise, the hu­mil­i­a­tion of his wife is now com­plete. It was her fa­tal over­reach that brought the end upon him.

‘I have very nar­row feet, so I can only wear Fer­rag­amo’ Grace Mu­gabe Jus­ti­fy­ing her spend­ing on de­signer shoes

Pic­ture: Getty Images

VAULT­ING AM­BI­TION Grace Mu­gabe, wife of Zim­bab­wean Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe and head of the Zanu-PF Women’s League, ad­dresses a Zanu-PF rally in Bulawayo in July.

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